By Jonathon Sharp, WCCO
A disclosure: I’m a huge Werner Herzog fan. From the moment I saw him describe the Amazon jungle as a place of “overwhelming and collective murder” in “My Best Fiend,” I knew he was an artist whose films I had to see, if only for the chance to catch a glimpse of his fierce and passionate independence. That said, keep this fact in mind as you read my thoughts on Herzog’s latest film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”
Before you read anything on this movie it is immensely important that you realize Cave of Forgotten Dreams must be seen in a theater. Without the big screen, without the 3-D glasses and without the opportunity for serious silence, the film likely lacks its platform for poetry.
What I mean is: the film’s use of 3-D is no gimmick. It doesn’t highlight explosions or make pop-out book projections of bullets in gunfights. Instead, it captures a place – a specific point on the earth where humans documented, perhaps for the first time, their dreams: impressive images of horses, lions, wolves and mammoths in liquid contours, hinting motion, suggesting something cinematic.
The use of 3-D is so effective in Cave of Forgotten Dreams that a certain claustrophobia can be felt as the illusion of the cave curves around your vision. You feel encased, alone before these images that have been waiting for a viewer for thousands of years. The experience is humbling and magnificently human.
Now let’s back up a second: Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary about cave paintings in France. In fact, it’s about the oldest cave paintings known to date. Buried in a landslide thousands of years ago, the paintings have only recently been discovered, and the French government has been quite conservative in regards to who can see and study them.
Somehow Werner Herzog, the film’s director, got the opportunity to make a movie about the paintings through some serious diplomatic sorcery…or so I suppose. And although he was granted access, he was given significant limitations. He had to work with a skeleton crew of four, he had to take all his shots from a two-foot plank that runs through the intestines of the cave and he had to get what he needed in only a handful of days.
These limitations give the film some rough edges. People and rails are in shots; and some paintings can’t be seen at all. Nevertheless, the images of the paintings (and even the landscapes surrounding the cave) are so intensely impressive that rougher ones just seem to work toward the film’s underlying narrative, Herzog’s story.
Like any other Herzog documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about Herzog – about his questions, his passions, his quest for appropriate images. (If you’ve never seen a Herzog documentary, be prepared for his heavy Bavarian accent, his dry humor and his grandiose diction.) Herzog’s story is particularly impressive in this film: For he is the first person to make art in the cave since the original cave artists. Herzog doesn’t ever state this fact– that is, he doesn’t boast of it – but it is obvious.
And it is through Herzog’s art we that we are connected with our ancestor-artists, who, for some reason, felt the need to articulate themselves through painting. The film reminds us who we are and where we came from. It is remarkable that even in the dawn of our species’ infancy, we (or at least some of us) felt the need to document our reality. It is in this way the film echoes the poet Borges’ words: “Whoever dreams is every human being.”